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March 31, 2008
By Patrick McDonnell
The 19th century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay “Self-Reliance,” wrote “to believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men — that is genius.”
If so, the University of Nevada, Reno has a case of genius rewarded in Robert Baird Jr., an 86-year-old decorated World War II veteran and former Nevada student who received his bachelor of science in civil engineering degree some 65 years after he expected to receive the honor. Physics professor and director of the core curriculum Paul Neill, in full academic regalia, presented Baird his diploma March 28 at the Sanger (Calif.) Rotary Club before dozens of fellow Rotarians, members of the media and the graduate’s friends and family.
Baird, called “a local legend” by his hometown paper, the Sanger Herald, enrolled at the University in 1942 as a transfer student from Reedley College. Following three semesters of full-time classwork on campus during the war, he had all but about 20 credits for completing the civil engineering program, had compiled a cumulative 3.08 grade-point average and was thinking about his graduation from the College of Engineering with the 132-person senior class.
Then the U.S. Navy called Baird to active duty June 28, 1943, and he reported to the University of Oklahoma for one semester and the midshipmen school at the University of Notre Dame.
Baird fought in the war’s Pacific Theater and became one of the Navy’s famous “frogmen.” He was honored with the Silver Star June 30, 1945 for his brave actions during the invasion of Saipan and Guam. Baird’s unit, often under machine gun fire, removed land mines from beaches.
He never returned to college. Baird raised his three children with his wife, the late Phyllis Edgar, and ran his father-in-law’s furniture store in Sanger until retiring in 1984.
Recently, he wrote a self-published book, Children of the Valley, which detailed his upbringing in the San Joaquin Valley, experiences at the University of Nevada, his efforts to complete his degree and his remembrances of the wartime duty.
“We have no doubt you would have satisfied this requirement had not World War II interfered with your studies,” University of Nevada, Reno President Milton Glick wrote in a letter to Baird, after reading the book this winter. “I judge that your exemplary and valiant service to the nation, and the state of Nevada, more than meets the spirit of this requirement.”
Robert Kirchner, 77, Baird’s friend and a retired school principal who lives in Sanger, also read the book. Kirchner contacted Sanger High graduate Victoria Campbell, a news reporter for KRNV-TV in Reno and an instructor at the University’s Reynolds School of Journalism. Campbell sent a message to the campus’ University Communications office, and information about Baird was forwarded to the Enrollment Services office.
Accounting for his valor in battle and the extenuating circumstances that prevented Baird from completing his degree requirements, the University conferred the academic honors. Baird reported he had asked for help from the admissions office in 1945, and the Board of Regents heard his case and ruled in his favor, but he lost the letter. No complete history of his record is on file.
Baird has kept a promise for more than six decades, back to the days when he married and was a newlywed.
“My wife, Phyllis (who passed away March 4 at age 85), said, ‘Will you promise me one thing? Will you go back to the University and check about your degree?’” he remembered.
“I forgot all about it since then, and a year and a half ago, I finished writing a book. Bob Kirchner read it. They dug back into the archives, into the dusty stuff, and there I was.”
Truth is, he’s Emerson’s definition of a genius; and now, one with a degree.